5 Burning Questions For The NCAA Women's Soccer Season
The last time the women's college soccer season ended in the state of Florida, neither the University of Florida nor Florida State sponsored the sport. Then again, neither did UCLA. And while the two Sunshine State powers have reason to believe they could be the last team standing in Fort Lauderdale this December, the Bruins won't surrender the crown to either of them or anyone else without a fight.
A lot has changed since that 1983 College Cup in Orlando, but let's look to the future with five questions for the 2014 season.
What comes after the best day of your life?
Nobody had a better day than Kodi Lavrusky did last December in Cary, North Carolina, so consider her a test case. One that ought to have the rest of college soccer extremely wary.
The answer just might be an even better day.
After back-to-back overtime games in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal at North Carolina and semifinal against Virginia a season ago, not to mention final exams during the days between those games, Lavrusky recalled she and her teammates were close to exhaustion by the time regulation ended with the national championship game against Florida State unresolved.
Then with a little more than six minutes elapsed in the first overtime period, UCLA's Megan Oyster pushed forward out of the back line and saw Lavrusky make a run toward open space inside Florida State's 18-yard box. Without even taking a touch to corral Oyster's pass, Lavrusky wrapped her hips around a shot and finished low to the far post.
In its ninth trip to the College Cup since 2000, UCLA finally had its first national championship.
Lavrusky, who was third on the team in goals but made the majority of her appearances as a substitute in what amounted to a platoon with New Zealand international Rosie White, is back. So is Oyster. So is just about everyone who was on the field when those two teamed up for the winner. For that matter, so is just about everyone who stormed the field from the bench in celebration. Only one starter and two of the 14 players who played in the title game do not return this season.
It's rare for any college team to have that kind of continuity, and those that do usually spent the previous season rebuilding or reloading -- not marching to a national championship under the guidance of a coach in her first season at the school, as was the case for Amanda Cromwell.
The Bruins made one of the most impressive NCAA tournament runs in memory, winning three consecutive games against No. 1 seeds without the benefit of playing any of those games in their own time zone, let alone their own stadium (even when they did get a home game, they had to beat the likes of arch rival Stanford in the Sweet 16). Cromwell inherited a roster loaded with talent and set about making it the sum of its parts. Instead of extra video sessions or training during a long road trip early in the season, they went to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. They went to a climbing wall. They invited parents who made the road trip to the hotel for a barbecue.
"Once the new coaching staff came in, we totally changed as a team," Lavrusky said. "I wouldn't say our style of play or anything like that, but what [Cromwell] brought to the team was on a whole different level. We just became as one, and when she came in the spring, we knew instantly there was going to be a different connection with the coaches. She just brought so much energy and trust within everyone, I think that's what brought us together."
There is no question the Bruins have the talent to become the first team other than North Carolina to repeat. Tactically, they used the spring season and a trip to Japan to grow more comfortable with formation flexibility. Sophomore Annie Alvarado, whom Cromwell said ranked first in preseason fitness tests, is ready to step in for Jenna Richmond, the lone departed starter.
It's keeping that chemistry that will be the challenge.
"One of the our greatest strengths and a challenge for us is our depth," Cromwell said. "There are so many players who are deserving of time, and obviously it would be hard to really crack into the [returning] starting lineup minus one player -- really the only consistent starter that we lost was Jenna Richmond."
What remains to be seen is whether the best was merely the beginning.
"We just know that we're one of the best teams in the country, if not the best," Lavrusky said. "And we can do anything that we set our minds to."
No other team in the country has as much reason to believe that.
Will Morgan Brian leave Virginia with a championship?
If part of the story of the season is what the Bruins do with the quantity of quality that returns, the other major plot line will follow what happens with the return of a singular talent at Virginia.
Morgan Brian has a Hermann Trophy to back up her case for being the best college player at the moment, and it isn't difficult to find support that suggests she's a generational talent at the college level. Minutes after Virginia solved the defensive riddle his team attempted to pose in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal, Michigan coach Greg Ryan wondered aloud if Brian might be from another planet. Whether she put the ball in the back of the net herself, and she did 16 times a season ago, her movement off the ball alone, Ryan suggested, could pull apart even the most disciplined defense.
She led the Cavaliers to the College Cup for the first time in more than two decades and brought both ACC regular-season (2013) and tournament (2012) titles to Charlottesville. Missing is the program's first national championship, and it is painfully absent after last season's dream run ended in a semifinal penalty shootout against UCLA.
So an all-time great will spend her senior season driving toward the one prize that eludes her. It's a good narrative.
Except the trophy isn't the only prize. Already into double-digit caps with the national team, Brian also wants a place on the American roster for next summer's World Cup and must win over a new coach to do so (albeit one in Jill Ellis who is well acquainted with all that the midfielder offers). With multiple friendlies on the schedule in advance of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in October, Brian has two soccer lives -- not to mention one academic one -- to juggle.
Despite losing a deep and productive senior class, most notably in the talent lost across the back line and holding midfield position, Virginia returns the foundation of a contender. That includes 20-goal scorer Makenzy Doniak, fresh off the Under-20 World Cup, midfielder Danielle Colaprico, experienced defender Emily Sonnett, and up-and-coming talents like Brittany Ratcliffe (12 goals in a reserve role last season) and Alexis Shaffer (nine assists in a similar reserve role).
Two prizes are out there. Is Brian otherworldly enough to claim both?
Five more challengers: Duke, Florida, Florida State, North Carolina, Stanford.
Who could challenge Morgan Brian for the Hermann Trophy?
Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Florida State: It shouldn't surprise anyone that Florida State produced the last foreign-born Hermann Trophy winner, Mami Yamaguchi, and Iceland's Brynjarsdottir is poised to continue the program's cosmopolitan legacy. She has increased her goal total every season in Tallahassee, and while the Seminoles may not need her to score 20 goals in order to get back to the College Cup, she could do it. A loaded schedule, even beyond the normal ACC grind, could either help shine a spotlight on her or slow her bid.
Abby Dahlkemper, UCLA: The defender is a returning Hermann finalist and Honda Award winner, which are about the only credentials she needs to make this list. She's a rock on the back line for the Bruins who led the team's non-keepers in minutes played a season ago despite missing one game. The biggest flaw in her candidacy may be the wealth of talent around her in Westwood. It's easy to envision any or all of fellow seniors Sarah Killion, Sam Mewis and Katelyn Rowland siphoning off support.
Arin Gilliland, Kentucky: She plays for a team picked to finish fourth in the SEC, which doesn't exactly fit the profile, but the Wildcats might be better than that. And Gilliland is definitely this good. The senior is versatile enough to play almost anywhere on the field, but she spent enough time near her opponent's goal a season ago to put up 12 goals and 10 assists. She keeps playing, and Kentucky keeps going to the NCAA tournament. It's not a coincidence.
Savannah Jordan, Florida: Imagine how many goals she might have scored had she picked up soccer sooner. Actually, Jordan's athletic diversity -- she didn't start playing competitive soccer until she was a teenager -- likely works to her advantage, but she also showed plenty of poise in piling up 22 goals as a freshman for the Gators. Time with the Under-20 national team can only have helped her development and to ward off any sophomore slump.
Rose Lavelle, Wisconsin: The Under-20 World Cup didn't work out quite as well as hoped for the United States, which was unable to survive a quarterfinal penalty shootout against North Korea in its attempt to defend its title, but even an abbreviated four-game stay in Canada was enough for Lavelle to impress in midfield. Wisconsin was recently picked to finish second in the Big Ten, and the reigning conference freshman of the year could claim an even bigger prize.
Why wait for 2015 to welcome the world's best to North America?
When Germany beat the United States to open group play in the Under-20 World Cup, the first goal of the game -- not to mention the tournament's first goal scored by any player attending college in the United States -- came off the foot of Germany's Lena Petermann. When that team's run ends in the international event, she will return to UCF, where she was the American Athletic Conference rookie of the year a season ago with eight goals and four assists.
German coach Maren Meinert said the national program lost touch with Petermann when she went abroad, a rarity for elite German players, but liked what they saw when they reconnected in advance of finalizing a U-20 roster.
"Sometimes people thrive in that system, other people it doesn't really help out," Meinert said, through an interpreter, of the college system. "If you want to as a player, you will succeed anywhere, but it's clear that for her it has paid off and she's developed really well in the system."
It remains to be seen how many current collegians will be in Canada next summer. But while Brian is likely the only American with a chance to do so, the rest of the world sends some of its best and brightest to play in this country.
Start with a touch of Old Blighty in New York. St. John's has high hopes this season in large part because of English products Rachel Daly, the Big East preseason offensive player of the year and a worthy addition to the Hermann list above, and Georgia Kearney-Perry, the Big East preseason defensive player of the year. Daly has earned looks from the full English national team and could be an asset for her homeland in 2019, if not 2015.
A more immediate World Cup preview can be found this fall for New Zealand. The Football Ferns, as the national team is known, have a host of both proven internationals and young prospects in the United States. When not playing for the University of Tennessee, Hannah Wilkinson has already appeared in a World Cup and Olympics and scored a goal in a friendly draw against the United States in Columbus, Ohio, last year. Countrywomen Katie Bowen (North Carolina) and White (UCLA) also share both World Cup and College Cup experience.
Challenging Florida State for international breadth, LSU has both two highly regarded Kiwis (Megan Lee and Lily Alfeld) and a similarly experienced Brit (Ella Williams), but its most notable foreign player could be Mexico's Natalia Gomez-Junco. A transfer from Memphis, Gomez-Junco scored eight goals as a freshman for those Tigers.
That's just a sampling, and we haven't even gotten to the Canadian talent sprinkled across rosters nationwide.
There is no need to wait for next summer to see a celebration of international women's soccer.
Why could La Salle matter in November?
The only certainty about preseason polls is that they won't be right. There are always surprises.
Sometimes the best indicator of such success is when a team doesn't consider itself much of a surprise at all.
Save for a pair of fifth-year seniors, no returning player on the La Salle roster has experienced anything in college other than a season that ended in the NCAA tournament. The Explorers are 47-22-7 over the past three seasons, including 20-2-4 in the Atlantic 10. Three times they reached the NCAA tournament, falling by successively smaller margins on the road in the first round against Maryland, Virginia and Georgetown.
Set against a program history that included no previous NCAA tournament appearances and 16 losing seasons since 1986, the past three seasons represent a golden era for the Philadelphia school. Unless you ask those involved.
"Our kids have been incredibly disappointed with our seasons these last three years because we haven't reached our ultimate goal of winning NCAA tournament games yet," La Salle coach Paul Royal said. "That's the kind of kid we've been lucky to recruit, that character, that drive -- kids that may have been overlooked by a lot of these big programs that have something to prove, that have that edge. That's really what has made our program special."
That there is rarely much in the way of hidden secrets in the rise of a program like La Salle doesn't make it any easier to duplicate. Find enough players who believe they are better than higher-profile programs thought they were in the recruiting process, including at least a couple who actually are, and get them to channel that energy toward a work rate opponents cannot or will not match. And much like building a fire, if you can keep that flame burning for more than a season or two, you start to get a bed of coals that makes it easier to keep it burning in perpetuity.
So while this season begins with some sizable holes to fill, most notably those previously filled by current Portland Thorns rookie Courtney Niemiec (who started 10 games before an injury sidelined her) and co-all-time leading scorer Renee Washington, the coals are still hot. Norwegian midfielder Maryam Huseini returns after setting a program record with 13 assists a season ago, and Royal expects two new international players, Kristin Haugstad (Norway) and Fia Johnson (Sweden) to made immediate contributions. Perhaps most important, the Explorers still have 5-foot-9 senior Kelsey Haycook, whose next goal will give her sole possession of the program's all-time record.
"I think she has a wonderful opportunity to play at the pro level in the NWSL next year," Royal said. "The No. 1 thing is she's just such a great teammate. She was a unanimous decision from our team as a captain. She's an Abby Wambach-type of player in the box. You won't find a college player that, if she has the supporting pieces around her, is as good as she is in the box on any team in the country this year. That's going to be our challenge, getting players that can get her the ball in dangerous areas. A lot of teams won't notice her much from the 18 to the 18, and then they look at the score sheet and she's got two goals and an assist."
Five more teams to keep an eye on: Dayton, Harvard, Navy, No. 17 Texas Tech, No. 12 West Virginia.